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Thou shalt animate the Bible

Chicago Tribune

For those who recall those old Classics Illustrated comics of the 1940s and ‘50s -- and even for those who don’t -- there’s an endearing, earnest quality to “The Ten Commandments” that transcends its star-studded cast and computer-generated animation.

By telling the story of Moses and the liberation of the Israelites in a straightforward fashion, directors Bill Boyce and John Stronach avoid the kind of heavy-handed moralizing or evangelism too often present in Judeo-Christian-inspired entertainment. That makes sense, since neither director is a stranger to bringing historical epics to the screen. (Both are working on a Noah’s Ark adaptation, due for 2008 release; Stronach has produced “Charlton Heston Presents the Bible” and an animated TV version of “Ben Hur.”)

Perhaps the smartest choices here come in casting, with heavyweight names giving sublime vocal performances. Ben Kingsley does splendid work as narrator, displaying a gentle, avuncular quality that makes you want to nestle at his feet, and Christian Slater does yeoman’s work as Moses, conveying the leader’s progression in maturity, wisdom and eventual resignation in convincing fashion.

He may be no Heston, but this is not your Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza either. Pre-adolescent kids would seem to be the ideal target audience, and “Commandments” gets it right by neither pandering nor preaching -- but instead presenting what is truly a remarkable story that has survived the millenniums.

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And then there is Gould as God -- Elliot Gould, that is, who doesn’t overdo it. In the realm of big-screen Big Guys, he’s less frumpy than George Burns in “Oh, God!,” far more convincing than Alanis Morissette in “Dogma” and possessed of a resonant baritone that commands attention and respect. I’m used to Gould as a goof, so seeing him take charge here marked the biggest delight of the film.

“Commandments” suffers from a few “thou shalt nots.” Making Ramses’ son a spoiled brat seems a simplistic way to push the buttons of kids, and the incessantly whining Israelites in the desert teeter perilously close to endorsing unpleasant ethnic stereotypes. But those are small annoyances given how much this film gets right.

“The Ten Commandments.” MPAA rating: PG (for some mild peril). Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. At selected theaters.


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